WAVERLY, Iowa — To watch Joe Biden at his best, owning a room with bluntness and humor and passion and ideas, feeding off the crowd in a way few politicians do, is to wonder: Why is this guy stuck at 2 percent?
On a recent night at this town’s civic center, about 120 Democrats got the A-1 Biden treatment: Self-deprecating jokes, tour-de-force liberal internationalist speech and the whiz-bang finish, quoting the Irish poet Seamus Heaney: “’History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.’ Please. Please join me in making hope and history rhyme. Because we can.”
Standing ovation. “Very good,” said Lloyd Martin of Tripoli, Iowa. “You gotta admit, he does tell the truth. “I think Hillary Clinton should make him secretary of defense.”
Of the 2008 presidential campaign’s storylines, that of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., is among the strangest: Eminent senator, 34 years service, respected chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee during an era of international tumult. Retail politician of rare skill, with a bedazzling smile, a golden tongue and frequent hands-on touches of voters, as if to draw life-force from them. A compelling personal story of early success, horrific personal loss, professional humiliation and ultimate recovery. Even a new book, “Promises to Keep,” inching this week onto the New York Times best-seller list.
Yet Biden has no traction. He polls at best up to 5 percent, at worst lumped in with “others.” He's raised $6.4 million — compared to about $60 million each raised by the Democratic front-runners, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
This even as the election turns on Biden’s specialty, national security.
But a war-weary Democratic electorate seeks only to exit Iraq. Instead, Biden offers a plan for a political solution there that could avert chaos. He lambastes opponents who simply “tell you what you want to hear.”
Asserting that no “unity” government in Iraq has a chance at popular support and success, Biden calls for splitting Iraq into three parts — Kurd, Sunni, Shiite — with a weak central government to manage oil revenues, guard the borders and set the currency.
He reminds voters that the Democratic nominee will need credibility on national security. Two new TV ads in Iowa focus on the war to drive his message home.
“The next president will be left with no margin for error,” Biden says. “Hear me? No margin for error. He or she better know more than his or her advisers. They better have been tested. They better not blink.”
Voters open to the idea of an underdog generally respond well.
“I think he tells things more like what they really are, unlike others who say what they wish things are,” said Earl Ward, a Biden supporter from Center Point, Iowa.
Biden says his chief problem is voters know him only from Sunday talk-fests.
“I think one of the things that primary voters care about is, they want to know the candidate,” Biden said in an interview. “They want to know more than just about what his or her position is on every issue. …That’s part of what’s going on now with us, is to essentially reintroduce myself to the Democratic voters out there. It takes time.”
What do they need to know about Biden?
There’s the mouth, his greatest gift and most terrible curse. It can make a bad hand a royal flush, as it did in Waverly.
But it can also cause Biden unlimited trouble. It did when he described Obama as “clean and articulate.” It did 20 years ago, when at a presidential debate in Iowa, he neglected to credit part of his speech to British politician Neil Kinnock. That led to accusations of serial plagiarism, which drove him from the race.
It does at Senate hearings, where Biden’s interminable soliloquies set eyeballs rolling. A colleague who admires him describes Biden as almost a case of arrested development: Elected to the Senate at 29, he never really had a boss to tell him to shut the hell up. So he doesn’t.
There’s the brain, a corollary to the mouth. He loves to share its processes and products. As Biden toured eastern Iowa this week, many questions focused on Iraq. In Independence, speaking to about 40 voters in a diner, he turned a large Biden poster into an ersatz map of Iraq, using his hands to chart out the country and the wider region, explaining in excruciating depth the various issues, sects and tribes at play.
It was impressive mastery of a complex problem, the stuff of graduate seminars. But all that time spent on the nitty-gritty of Iraq was time not spent painting the broad strokes of who Joe Biden is and why he should be president.
Finally, there’s his story, who Joe Biden is. Stuttering son of a middle-class car salesman. Struggle financially at the University of Delaware. Beat his stutter by reciting poetry to the mirror. As a young lawyer, upset an incumbent senator in the Republican year of 1972. Then, before he took office, tragedy: Wife and daughter killed in a car wreck. His two boys seriously injured. Biden nearly quit public life before he really began it, but agreed to give it six months, which led to 34 years and counting.He married again, had a daughter. He commutes by train 250 miles each day, every day, between Wilmington and Washington to be with his family.
Ran for president as a hot prospect in 1988 before it all fell apart over plagiarism. Overcame two aneurysms that required seven months of hospitalization and recuperation. Settled in for a long haul as a senator of substance before deciding to give the White House one last shot.
“I’m operating on the premise that I believe the American public is looking for straight talk,” Biden said. “And backed up by a track record that demonstrates you can do something with what you’re talking about.”
But voters seem to seek the thrill of the new, and Biden, now 64, isn’t.
Biden says he’ll benefit from hard work and good organization in small states with early contests, such as Iowa and New Hampshire: “The truth of the matter is, without them, I don’t have a chance.”
A top-three finish in Iowa tees him up, Biden figures. Below that, he’s done.
The other half of the Biden-has-a-chance equation involves the weaknesses of the front-runners. Clinton’s negatives already veer into the mid-40s, before the attacks really begin. Obama’s inexperience unsettles some. And neither seems well-positioned for the red states, where Biden says he can compete because he speaks the language of white middle-class males: “It’s who I am.”
“I really do think electability is gonna end up being a giant issue here,” he said.
So the front-runners do bus tours and large-scale events. For Joe Biden, it’s an old-fashioned Iowa caucus campaign: a two-car caravan, 40 voters here, 15 voters there, a mug of coffee in hand, a smile, an idea, a poem and a plea.